Drawing Studies For a Large Portrait

Master artists and others have been drawing studies to work out more complex compositions for centuries. It’s one of the most basic, most important, and most often neglected tool in the artist’s toolbox.

I should know, because it’s the tool I ignore more often. Why?

Because it takes time to draw studies, studies usually focused on parts of the composition I didn’t want to draw, and because I never thought I was that good at drawing studies.

NOTE: This post is based on my experiences with one of the last portraits in oils I did, but the lessons I learned apply to all mediums. In the years since, I’ve learned to draw from life, which improves my artwork at all levels.

It will yours, too. So read on!

Drawing Studies for Large Portraits

But you know what? It turns out drawing studies aren’t all that difficult.

What’s even better? The more studies you draw, the better you get (and the faster.)

Why I Started Drawing Studies Again

Some time ago, I did something I never thought I’d do: Accept a commission of a personal portrait in oils. A large portrait.

It was a full figure portrait that included lots of flowers, an outdoor setting, and, well, a real live human being. Nary a horse in sight.

Like I said, something I never thought I’d do.

Because it was a long distance portrait, I worked from photographs. The photographs were high-resolution, and the work of a professional photographer. In other words, excellent references.

But that didn’t diminish the scale or scope of the portrait. Or the Fright Factor. (The Fright Factor, by the way, was huge!)

To prepare, I looked online for anything I could find relative to doing human portraits in oils. Among the things I found were a series of videos that were not only very helpful, but also motivating.

One of them was a Russian artist, Igor Kazarin. He works in oils and one of his videos features a head and shoulders portrait.

I’ve also found the tutorial videos of David Gray. He uses a technique similar to mine, so watching his videos was also helpful, and encouraging.

I watched at least one video every work day I had the time. Especially the drawing videos as I worked my way through the new commission.

Drawing Studies Help You Get Familiar With Your Subject

Those videos motivated me to start drawing studies of my subject. My hope was to get comfortable drawing these parts of the portrait, and gain confidence in my drawing skills. I wanted to get familiar enough to be able to paint with confidence.

So I started drawing some of the less scary things.

I chose this study of the subject’s handbag because I’ve discovered I can draw almost anything that’s organic, but give me something man-made and it’s a nightmare!

Drawing Studies - Handbag Study

Once I got comfortable with the handbag, I also drew studies of the subjects eyes, and of other parts of the portrait.

Drawing Studies - Eyes

Drawing studies came into play at all phases of this project, and even while I worked out the overall composition on gridded paper. If I had doubts about an area, I developed it as a more complete study.

Drawing Studies - Foot & Sandal

Most of the studies involved unusual parts of the composition, such as the foot and sandal above. But I also worked out the details of more familiar, but complex areas, such as the palm fronds shown below.

Drawing Studies - Palm Leaves Study

Most of the studies were drawn while I was working on the line drawing, but I also did a few studies during the painting process.

You Can Do Drawing Studies to Improve Your Drawing Skills and Confidence

It’s not that difficult to get started drawing studies, as you’ve seen in my example.

Are you working on a drawing that has some difficult parts? Draw a few studies of those areas before you tackle them on the finished piece. You can do graphite studies like I did, or use colored pencils.

Maybe your next project is a portrait or commissioned piece that has you worried. Identify the parts that have you most concerned, and draw a few studies.

You don’t need to do large studies, or get fancy. The study of the eyes I shared above were all drawn on the same sheet of paper. And you don’t even need a lot of expensive supplies. A small sketch pad or inexpensive paper is sufficient. After all, these studies don’t need to be archival.

“But I’m not working on a complex drawing right now,” you say.

That’s okay.  Do a few life studies instead. The drawing will do you good. If you need a little motivation, you might check out the plein air drawing in colored pencil group on Facebook.

So how did the portrait turn out? Here’s the finished painting. All 24 by 36 inches of it!

Drawing Studies - Finished Portrait

Taking the time to draw studies of the parts I wasn’t sure about took a lot of time at the beginning of the process, but ended up saving time overall. The details I’d drawn studies for proved easier to paint than other areas.

It all contributes to improving your drawing skills, and that increases your confidence.

Both prepare you for the next big challenge on your colored pencil journey.

The Importance of Drawing From Life

Let’s talk about something most artists don’t appear to give much thought to these days: the importance of drawing from life.

I know this topic is put on a back burner for most artists because I gave it little or no thought for most of my artistic life. My focus for nearly 40 years was portrait work, and I had a full-time job, drawing time was dedicated to portrait work. It never seemed important that I draw from life or do any art that wasn’t directly related to whatever portrait I was working on at the time.

The Importance of Drawing from Life

But I was in error thinking that way. I short-changed myself by focusing so tightly on art for business, and may have actually hindered my progress as an artist.

Then came the acceptance of a large portrait in which the subject is human in 2013.

With a lot of flowers (hundreds of white roses.)

And a lot of palm fronds.

And a beautiful porcelain vase, a banner, bows, and…. (You get the idea.)

I did a lot of study sketches for that portrait. Mostly facial features, which had to be spot-on accurate. Those studies are all from reference photographs provided for the project, and they were invaluable (a topic for another post.)

But they didn’t quite get the job done. I needed something more. Something that stretched my ability to see what I wanted to draw, and to draw it more accurately.

So I turned to drawing from life.

The Importance of Drawing From Life

Since the portrait subject lived hundreds of miles away, I found other things for life drawing. Things not related directly to the portrait, but that would improve my ability to see, as well as my eye-hand coordination.

I learned valuable lessons through that experience. Here are a few of them.

Drawing from life develops observation skills.

This drawing is a life drawing. It’s not complete because I was walking the cat when I drew it (yes, on a leash). Thomas decided to lie in the shade, so I took advantage of the half hour to draw.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Leaf Study

This particular drawing shows the growth end of one of the branches of a Mock Apple. I’d never before noticed the leaflets at the base of each leaf. Now I notice them all the time.

And that’s part of the reason for doing life drawings. Observation. You can see things in life—little details like leaflets, or color gradations—that are often vague or missing in photographs.

Learning to see and accurately draw values is also a reason to draw from life.

I drew the Mock Apple in strong light. I drew many other things in strong light, too, as well as in filtered and flat light.

If your subject is in strong light, it’s easy to see not only highlights and shadows, but middle values and reflected light. We all know about drawing accurate shadows and highlights, but the middle values and reflected light really bring a subject to life.

There is no better way to view how light illuminates objects than in real life.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Value Studies

But you don’t have to go outside to see strong light. I drew this egg indoors. I arranged it under a single bulb lamp and positioned it on a white cloth, so there was plenty of light bouncing around.  Not only was it a great study of drawing white objects on white paper; it was an ideal light study.

It gets you out of your usual art routine.

Drawing from life is perfect for forcing you out of your usual art habits.

Some of you know that I’ve been an equine portrait artist since high school. Suffice it to say a long time. Since art time was such a premium most of those decades, I did very little art that wasn’t equine in nature.

I live in a residential area where dogs and cats are the most common animals, followed by birds and other small wildlife.

So when I started drawing from life, I was forced to draw something other than horses. Things like utility flags, the end of the porch railing, wood planks, and a loop of orange extension cord lying on the ground.

Here’s a bonus for many of us. Drawing from life means getting outside. Away from technology and into the fresh air and sunshine. I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for a 20 to 30-minute break most days.

How to Fit Drawing from Life into Your Art Routine

Draw outside once a week (or as often as possible)

Now that you know why I think drawing from life is so important, let me share a few ways I’ve found to fit it into my art routine.

A couple of autumns ago, I started a plein drawing challenge. I took myself outside each week for two months to draw. The goal was to produce one plein drawing a week.

I did it again last year, and I plan to do it this year.

After last year’s challenge ended, I decided to continue through the end of the year.

I’ve fallen down on the plein air challenge this year, but I do still draw outdoor subjects as often as possible. Even when I have to do it through a window!

Importance of Drawing from Life - Plein Air

Even when I haven’t been able to get outside every week, the motivation still exists. The fact of the matter is, I now see potential drawings almost everywhere I look!

Do small studies whenever (and wherever) you can

At the beginning of this year, I decided to finish one small piece every week this year. Most of those pieces have been smaller than the maximum of 4 x 6 inches I set for myself. The fact is, most of them have been ACEOs (3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches.)

But most of them have also been life drawings.

The personal challenge and the small size make it easy to dash off a drawing—even a detailed drawing—in 30 minutes or less.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Small Drawings

Collect interesting potential subjects

A reader asking how to draw wet stones led me to collecting stones. I had to have a subject for that post, after all.

Once I got started, I looked for stones every time I went out walking. I even went out a time or two just to look for stones.

As I write this, I have a collection of seven stones of various sizes, shapes, colors, and textures to one side of my drawing desk. So now I don’t need to leave the house or the drawing desk in order to draw something from life.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Collect Interesting Objects

But I still do. I’ve found several places around the neighborhood where there are plenty of stones to pick up! I would never have noticed them in the past.

Look for interesting subjects all around you.

You don’t have to leave the house to find interesting subjects. You don’t even have to start a collection.

Just look around you!

For instance, I look around where I sit at this moment and I see my pencils (some in interesting containers) and the old crank sharpener I use. There’s the computer mouse, a brick (yes, an actual brick,) a coffee cup with a spoon in it, those stones, a piece of cloth, a power strip, the modem and router for the computer, the computer itself, some paper, and some power cords and internet cables on the floor.

The Importance of Drawing From Life - New Subjects

In other words, I don’t have to go anywhere, or even move out of this chair, to draw something from life.

Conclusion

Drawing from life is an important part of the artist’s life. Or it should be. It’s perfect for honing skills, exploring new or potential subjects, and just having fun.

And as you’ve seen, it’s easy to fit into your schedule whether you’re a full- or part-time artist.

What are you going to draw from life this week?

For more tips, read Three Ways to Draw Plein Air on EmptyEasel.

My Plein Air Drawings for 2017

This past September, I set a goal of drawing outside at least once a week. It was the second year I did the plein drawing challenge, and  I ended up with six plein air drawings that month.

That challenge was open to all who were interested in taking their colored pencils outside and drawing, too.

When September ended, I decided to continue with a personal challenge until the end of the year. I’d gotten into the habit, enjoyed sitting outside to draw, and because I was learning a lot. Setting a goal for the rest of the year looked like a good way to keep myself drawing, and to put more fun into the drawing process.

There are twenty weeks in the last four months of the year, so I should have ended up with 20 drawings.

While I didn’t always draw every week, I did end up with 23 plein air drawings!

2017 Plein Air Drawings

The drawings are arranged in chronological order. All of them are 5×7 inches or smaller, and most of them are colored pencil drawings, though I drew several of them with three colors or less, and three pen-and-ink sketches (ball point pen) are also in the collection. Those are very small. The pad of paper is about 3×5, just to prove you don’t need expensive tools to sketch!

Will there be more plein air drawings next year?

Yes, there will, if only because I’m already planning to do a third annual plein air drawing challenge, and it will be open to anyone with an interest in drawing outside with colored pencils.

I haven’t yet decided whether to continue the personal weekly challenge.

Having said that, I have to admit to a certain feeling of satisfaction in seeing all of this year’s drawings together. Seeing the seasons advance drawing by drawing also has a certain appeal.

Don’t you think?

Sketching With Colored Pencils

When most people think of colored pencils, they may think first of sketching. Sketching with colored pencils is great for improving eye-hand coordination, exploring potential subjects, or just having fun.

But did you know you can make and sell colored pencils sketches?

Sketching with Colored Pencils

One of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in conjunction with horse shows are on-the-spot sketches. The drawing below is my favorite sketch.

Sketching With Colored Pencils - Dog

At shows, someone presents me with a photo of their horse, dog or other animal and I create an 8×10 drawing from the image. As with most of these samples, I use colored paper and two or three colored pencils. The colors are chosen based on the color of the animal and I spend no more than an hour on each drawing.

Sketching with colored pencils is also a good way to sketch from life or do some plein air drawing.

Sketching with Colored Pencils - Clydesdale

Have Fun and Make Money

Clients love the immediacy and it’s a great way to supplement the sales of larger paintings and generate interest in more polished portraits.

My favorite part about this kind of sketching is that I often get to draw something other than horses. Dogs, for example. I also drew a cat for someone.

Sketching as a Study for Larger Work

I sometimes do quick draws to find the best composition for a painting. It’s also a good way to practice a particular technique or subject, or brush up on a difficult or unusual subject.

Or it might be something outside the realm of my usual subjects that catches my artistic eye. Sunlight on a leaf, for instance. Or on a glass.

Sketching With Colored Pencils - Gray Arab

They also make great gifts. With Christmas just around the corner, sketches like these may be exactly the ticket for the animal lovers you know. Sketching with colored pencils may be a good place to begin.